The Christmas pony that changed my life

December 12, 2011

It's time to break out the tinsel for Horsetalk's 2011 Christmas story!

• 2010 Christmas story:
Wild horses to the rescue!
• 2009 Christmas story:
Christmas Crisis in the Pony Division
• 2008 Christmas story:
The year horses saved Christmas
I never much cared for Old Man Warner.

As a boy, I used to sneak up the lane beside his house in late summer and raid his small orchard for peaches, apples and nectarines.

He caught me in the act once and I successfully fled over the fence.

He yelled over the fence, "Just ask, next time, Marc" but I never did.

In hindsight, he was pretty reasonable about it, but it was not in the nature of a rebellious 11-year-old boy to ask for anything, and my orchard raids continued unabated throughout the summer of 1986.

I was brought up in a town in Montana called Belgrade, near Bozeman. There were small holdings on the outskirts of town and I was raised by my folks on a 10-acre block. I had two older sisters who did not share my passion for orchard raids - or for horses.

It's strange, I know. In a world where young girls are pony mad, I became obsessed with horses while they stuck with Barbie dolls. Their loss.

It all began with a friend, Dillon, who lived a couple of blocks away. His family had a pretty feisty bunch of thoroughbreds. I loved to watch them work, but never got much of an opportunity to ride, except when led around by Dillon's Dad.

Anyway, back to Old Man Warner.

He lived over the road and a couple of places down, on about 20 acres. I called him Old Man Warner, but in reality he was only 60 or so.

My dislike for him was pretty hard to work out, when I look back. He had fruit, I wanted it, and there was no way I was going to ask. He never tried to fill my backside with buckshot or anything.

He could have brought the whole thing to an end by talking to my folks, I guess.

I imagine that meant he didn't really mind me having an odd peach or apple or nectarine.

It was later in 1986 when the pony first appeared in Warner's orchard block. It had been a couple of months since I had been up the lane - after all, the fruit from the summer season was long gone. So up I went for a look.

She was standing in a heavy rug eating hay Warner had placed in a feeder.

I never realised Warner had any interest in horses.

I kept an eye on the pony and a couple of days later, on an unseasonably mild December day, I spied the pony with her rug off. Up the lane I went for a closer look.

The sight turned my stomach. Warner's pony was painfully thin. Her coat was dull and you could play a tune on her ribs. Her hip bones were protruding and her top line was pitiful.

How could that mean old man do that to a poor pony, I thought?

I was determined to make trouble for him. I told all my friends at school of the man's cruelty. Dillon told his parents, who were very concerned and promised to make inquiries.

A few days before Christmas, I saw the local humane society's pickup truck parked outside Warner's house. Justice at last for the pony!

I could not fathom why they didn't just take the poor girl away.

Christmas Day dawned and I checked out my booty. I sorted through the presents under the tree. I found two, one marked "To Marc, love Mom and Dad" and the other "from Santa."

Any self-respecting and sensible 11-year-old still has a foot firmly in the camp of Father Christmas. He's hardly going to come if you don't believe!

I still remember my spoils - a new GI Joe action figure and a game for my Atari computer.

Then, Mom and Dad asked me to go for a walk with them.

We crossed the road and headed straight up to Warner's door. What kind of Christmas hell is this?

Jeff Warner answered the door and invited us in. His wife, Joan, made us all a hot drink.

"Marc," he said. "I understand you're interested in horses."

"Yes," I replied.

Warner told me the story of his pony. Her name was Speckles and she was five years old. Speckles was broken in as a three-year-old, but her owners hit hard times and had to sell her.

Her new owners knew little of horses and Speckles suffered for it. She did not get enough to eat and missed out on worming and hoof care.

In the end, Speckles was seized by the our local sheriff and placed in the care of the local humane society. Her owners quickly surrendered all rights to Speckles.

Warner, it transpires, had spent his life around horses and, as a humane society volunteer, offered to take her in.

He explained how it takes time to bring a starved horse back to good condition.

"If you're prepared to help me with that, you should be able to ride Speckles in about six months," he said.

I could barely contain my excitement!

I was over there every day, helping to feed Speckles and clean out her stall, where she spent her nights. We gradually built up Speckles' feed and, slowly but surely, she returned to top condition.

Warner told me how he had ridden for most of his life, until his arthritis made it too difficult. He even competed in cutting-horse competitions and other western events.

He explained and demonstrated the importance of groundwork and, come summer, we were able to saddle up Speckles and gradually re-introduce her to work.

What a team we were! Speckles was willing and Warner taught me plenty.

"Heels down, back straight," he would cry as we schooled around the orchard block in those early days.

I joined the local riding club and made a whole new circle of friends. I also met Sally, who graduated from being my childhood sweetheart to my wife some 12 years later!

Christmas of 1987 rolled around and there was no new GI Joe figure or new video game. Instead, it was a new bridle and a new saddle. My granny gave me cash and I spent it on feed for Speckles.

In Christmas of 1988, Warner gave me Speckles. She still stayed at Warner's house, but she was mine, he said. I couldn't believe it.

Speckles stood at 14 hands, so she just scraped in as a pony. She was strongly built and had no trouble carrying me, even as I got older.

In the summer of 1989, Warner's wife died unexpectedly.

His arthritis was troubling him more than ever and he was forced to sell up and move to a rest home.

Speckles came to live with us. I was more than capable of looking after her by then.

Time has since marched on, and I still think back on what a pivotal part dear old Speckles played in my formative years. It was Speckles and Warner who gave me the opportunity to learn to ride.

It was through Speckles that I met my wife and we still live on the outskirts of Belgrade on a 50-acre farm with half a dozen Arabian horses. We have twin eight-year-old daughters, Samantha and Hope, both of whom are horse-mad.

I'm 36 now. Horse-riding is still a big part of our lives, and I earn a living as a farrier.

Sally and I got into endurance riding, but, with work commitments, we struggle to find the time to get the horses into proper condition.

Trail riding is more our thing, these days.

Christmas is always a relaxing day, and a chance to remember all the things that are important to us.

It is special for my family in so many ways. We head out after opening our presents to give the horses their Christmas treats.

Around mid-morning, I take a short drive a few blocks away to the Mornington Rest Home, where I pick up Jeff Warner. He's 85 now. That arthritis is still a burden, but he still has a sense of humour and a sharp wit.

"Morning Marc," he says.

"Morning Jeff," I reply.

"Nice day for a ride," he says, peering from the window of the car.

We arrive home and he has presents for the girls.

Then, it's out to the tack room, where Samantha and Hope get on their riding gear and I pick up a saddle and bridle.

Just over the fence, watching developments, is Speckles. She's 30 now and has well and truly earned her stripes as a schoolmaster pony.

She, too, has a touch of arthritis, but is always eager to please.

Within a few minutes she's saddled up and the girls take her for a light Christmas ride.

Jeff Warner has a smile from ear to ear.

"Heels down, back straight," he cries, as he leans across the yard railing.

The old man is in his element. The girls are giggling and joking. Speckles has more than a little spring in her trot.

"Marc," he says, "this is the highlight of my year."

I throw an arm around his shoulders.

"Mine too," I reply.